Panama’s southwest province of Chiriquí contains the country’s most varied scenery. Landscapes that evoke different continents—from alpine peaks to palm-lined beaches—lie mere hours apart. The diverse environments provide conditions for world-class sportfishing, bird-watching, scuba diving, river rafting, horseback riding, hiking, and surfing, making Chiriquí an ideal destination for nature lovers.
Lush cloud forest covers the northern sector of the province. The valleys that flank Volcán Barú—an extinct volcano and Panama’s highest peak—have cool mountain climates and unforgettable scenery. Boquete, Bambito, and Cerro Punta are popular with bird-watchers, rafters, and hikers, and have captivating landscapes and charming restaurants and inns. The southern lowlands are less impressive—hot and mostly deforested—and become brown and dusty in the dry season. To the south lies the Golfo de Chiriquí, with dozens of pristine islands and countless acres of coral reef awash with rainbows of marine life, and an opportunity to sample world-class, but little-known, surfing and sportfishing.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The province’s bustling, sweltering capital won’t be the Chiriquí you came to see. All services are here, however—at 144,000 inhabitants, lowland David clocks in as Panama’s third-largest city. With the vagaries of transportation in this region, you may find yourself spending the night here, so we list a few lodgings and services. Whether staying or just passing through, pronounce the city’s name the Spanish way (Dah-VEED), so that people understand what you’re talking about.
BOCA CHICA AND ISLA BOCA BRAVA
Long a sleepy fishing port at the end of a long, paved road, Boca Chica has a small selection of hotels that serve the islands of Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí. The town is on a peninsula overlooking the nearby island of Boca Brava. Together, they define the eastern edge of a mangrove estuary that extends all the way to Playa La Barqueta. Neither the island nor the mainland has great beaches. The attractions are beyond Boca Brava on the uninhabited islands of beaches. The attractions are beyond Boca Brava on the uninhabited islands of the Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí, a 40-minute boat ride away. Beyond them lie world-class sportfishing and diving around the Islas Ladrones and Islas Secas.
GOLFO DE CHIRIQUÍ ISLANDS
The vast Gulf of Chiriquí holds dozens of uninhabited islands surrounded by healthy coral formations and excellent conditions for surfing, diving, and fishing. You can base yourself in the Boca Chica/Boca Brava area to explore these islands. Isla Ensenada, in the gulf’s northeast corner, is near five of the country’s best and most remote breaks. The beautiful, remote Islas Secas (Dry Islands), a 16-isle archipelago 21 miles from the coast, can be visited from Boca Chica or Boca Brava.
PLAYA SANTA CATALINA
Literally, at the end of the road, the tiny fishing village of Santa Catalina sits near some of the best surfing spots in the country and is the closest port to Isla Coiba, Panama’s top dive destination. For years, the only people who visited Playa Santa Catalina, technically outside Chiriquí in the province of Veraguas, were adventurous surfers who made the long trip here on rough roads and slept in rustic rooms for the pleasure of riding La Punta, a right point break. The roads and accommodations are better now, and two dive centers have opened. Never fear: This is still a quiet beach town, and you come here to enjoy ocean views through the palm fronds, friendly locals, cheap seafood, and amazing surf and diving.
PARQUE NACIONAL COIBA
Remote and wild, Panama’s largest island and one of the world’s largest marine parks offers the country’s best scuba diving, world-class fishing, and palm-lined beaches. About 80% of the island is covered with tropical dry forest, home to an array of wildlife.
This pleasant town sits at 3,878 feet above sea level in the always springlike valley of the Río Caldera. The surrounding mountains are covered with forest and shade coffee farms, where coffee bushes grow amidst tropical trees. It’s superb for bird-watching, and the roads and trails can be explored on foot, horseback, mountain bike, or four wheels.
PARQUE NACIONAL VOLCÁN BARÚ
Towering 11,450 feet above sea level, Barú Volcano is literally Chiriquí’s biggest attraction and Panama’s highest peak. The massive dormant volcano is visible from David and is the predominant landmark in Boquete and Volcán, but Bambito and Cerro Punta are tucked so tightly into its slopes that you can hardly see it from there. The upper slopes, summit, and northern side of the volcano are protected within Barú Volcano National Park, which covers some 35,000 acres and extends northward to connect with the larger Parque Internacional La Amistad, shared by Panama and Costa Rica.
A breezy little town, Volcán has the best view of Volcán Barú, several miles northeast. The town is a dreary succession of restaurants, banks, and other businesses spread along a north-south route. This is an ideal base for white-water rafting on the Río Chiriquí Viejo since you can join rafting trips in Concepción, 21 miles south.
This bowl-shaped highland valley northwest of Volcán Barú offers some splendid bucolic scenery and is bordered by vast expanses of wilderness that invite bird-watchers, hikers, and nature lovers. A patchwork of vegetable farms covers the valley floor and clings to the steep slopes that surround it, and ridges are topped with dark cloud forest and rocky crags. On the eastern side of the valley, a steep slope rises up into a wedge of granite for which the area was named—Cerro Punta means “pointed hill.” That eastern ridge, part of the country’s Continental Divide, is often enveloped in clouds pushed there by the trade winds.